10 November 1999
As General Pinochet looks back at a year under house arrest in London, the last thing on his mind will be the remarkable contribution he has made towards the cause of televising the courts. The various rulings by the Law Lords in his case were the first judgments by an English court to be delivered live on television. The Bow Street court went one further and allowed television cameras into the committal hearing before the Deputy Chief Magistrate, Ronald Bartle (his superior, Graham Parkinson, having found himself too busy to hear the most important and highly-publicised extradition application either of them is ever likely to encounter).
You will not have seen TV pictures of the Pinochet hearing because they were not broadcast or recorded: they were sent by CCTV link to reporters in overflow courtrooms. But what of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, which makes it an offence to take photographs in court of the judge or any party to the proceedings? The view taken by court staff at Bow Street was that transmitting pictures from one part of the building to another did not amount to taking or publishing photographs.
Really? Although the 1925 legislation pre-dates the invention of television, it has generally been taken to prohibit broadcasts from the courts of England and Wales (the legislation does not apply to Scotland; and the Law Lords clearly do not consider themselves to be a "court" for these purposes). But if live television is not photography, what is there in law to stop court proceedings being televised?
I look forward to discussing this issue with my fellow legal correspondents the next time we are invited to a drinks party at the Inns of Court. We may not always get our stories right, but we can usually see when we are being taken for a ride. Other specialists may not be so fortunate. Take the recent case in which four former members of the armed forces challenged the Government's ban on homosexuals in the services. In advance of the ruling, The Times correctly predicted that the four would win their case in the European Court of Human Rights. But the paper's defence editor, Michael Evans, then reported Ministry of Defence sources as saying that such a decision would not lead to a change in policy "for at least two years".
In fact, the policy was suspended within two hours. Mr Evans had been advised that the court was "not expected to order the scrapping of Britain's policy of banning homosexuals from serving in the armed forces". He said it was "believed to be more likely that the Ministry of Defence will be told to review its policy". He is not to be blamed for reporting what he was told. But any correspondent who understood how the Human Rights Court works would know that governments must implement its rulings, not just think about them.
Government ministers should also remember that civil servants are not allowed to play party politics. In his speech at a recent conference that the Lord Chancellor's Department had organised to support the Government's Community Legal Service, Lord Irvine made two blatantly political references to "New Labour" and its belief in society. The comments were added at the last minute, leaving officials no time to advise the Lord Chancellor that they are not supposed to distribute speeches containing party propaganda, even if they do bear the Royal Coat of Arms.